Monday, March 29, 2021

The Full Hanawalt: I Want You

I've been comparing each of Lisa Hanawalt's books to her minicomics series I Want You with regard to how far they go with regard to their gags, sheer weirdness, and overall filth. While My Dirty Dumb Eyes, Hot Dog Taste Test, and Coyote Doggirl all have their merits, none of them had quite the same unhinged energy as I Want You. It was with delight and surprise that I learned that D&Q was going to reprint this material, in part because so much of it informs her later design work on BoJack Horseman and her own series, Tuca and Bertie. Sure, it's a shameless cash-in (and the promotion reflects that), but this will be a real eye-opener for Hanawalt fans who never got a chance to read her minis. 

As a bonus, Hanawalt drew a hilarious six-page introduction that also serves as one of the better artist meditations I've read about the relationship an author has with old work. Hanawalt revealing that the work's connection with her relationships and life circumstances at that time sheds a great deal of light on why certain gags may be uncomfortable to revisit, even if a reader has no connection to this information. Hanawalt also praises her younger self for a lot of the material while chastising jokes that feel shallow or easy (like lots of dick jokes). What I've always found interesting about Hanawalt's work is the clear intellect at work in crafting her gags and thinking about the world, but her willingness to go deep into her id in a way that's gross, revealing, frequently unflattering, hilarious, and perverted is fascinating. That's especially true because her process feels so intuitive at times; when she grabs onto an idea, she runs with it and keeps going, well past a point where one expects but never losing the energy of the gag.

Hanawalt opened with a list gag, this time of "Mistakes We Made At The Grocery Store." It's mildly funny and absurd, but other iterations of this form would be more effective later. The real first shot across the bow in this book is "One Day At Work." In a highly naturalistic style, Hanawalt draws herself typing at a keyboard, only to find some of the keys are sticking. The culprits: sex bugs, gumming up the works with their fucking and semen. One of them ejaculates onto her face, which a coworker mistakes for mayonnaise and proceeds to wipe it of her face and eat it (!), which makes Hanawalt puke on the keyboard, which leads to the bugs thanking her for the lube. The rhythm of outrageous calamities at play here and the escalation of events, along with his taboo-busting power, gives this strip its gross power. It is sex, and filth, and gross, hidden things, and violating boundaries. It's a bizarre fantasy of the id, yet one that doesn't seek any victims; it's content in turning that fantasy inward. As I've said before with regard to humor, punching down is simply cruel, punching up can feel like hectoring, but punching yourself is always funny. 

It's not even self-deprecatory humor, either. Just an acknowledgment and celebration of one's own deep weirdness. Not all of it is gross or even internal, as Hanawalt just really likes drawing anthropomorphic characters in a naturalistic style, with particular attention paid to their clothing. The results are bizarre and endearing, and it's this aesthetic which drives much of her animation work. Sex is never far from her mind in these strips, although in the least erotic ways possible. For example, another list strip, "Common Dirty Talk and the Questions It Raises" dives right into that rawest of sexual raw materials, dirty talk meant to inflame desire. Hanawalt instead gets into the gears of it with deliberate reversals, like "You are filthy and your man meat is saltier than anything. Q: Is this really the best time to be criticizing my restaurant?" This is all accompanied by a drawing of a meal. Hanawalt can't help but subvert not just desire, but reality itself.

The ultimate Hanawalt list comic is "Things We Are Sorry We Did Last Night," which includes an item about murdering other Lisa Hanawalts and an extended section about shitty dances she came up with. It's a subversion of "bad decisions" type stories that features top-notch drawings that are inextricably bound with each gag. Even weaker material is boosted by her total commitment to the gag through her drawings, but her mastery of callback humor really comes into play here as well. Overall, there's no separation between writing and drawing for Hanawalt; they are just two complementary aspects of the same form of expression. 

Hanwalt's "Worst Sandwiches" feature really emphasizes her drawing in setting up gags like "Sandwich That Can't Hold You Close At Night" and "Peanut Butter Sandwich That Doesn't Taste Right" (because it's full of maggots). "How To Get A Haircut" presages the sort of work she'd start to do later when she was getting paid to do features like movie reviews. So much of the book isn't even directly gag-related; they are just drawings of things that Hanawalt likes, or the adventures of her BoJack-presaging He-Horse and She-Moose, who are always endeavoring to get laid. In retrospect, the gags in the book represented Hanawalt cycling through comedic interests and laying the groundwork for further refinement. The almostly palpably nervous energy present in these books, the sheer weird horniness and desire to follow her id on the page, was refined and redirected in future work. Rather than go to the id well one too many times, she instead found other ways to follow her funny obsessions, especially as her storytelling became more sophisticated. That said, fans of Hanawalt's work will find this book to be absolutely essential, both because it's as funny as any comics I've ever read and because of the roads she continued to pursue and the avenues she chose to abandon. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Checking In With John Porcellino

Let's take a look at some of John Porcellino's output from the last year. The long-time force between highly influential mini King-Cat Comics and Stories, Porcellino has been publishing it continuously since 1989, although a host of health problems and struggles have slowed his output. Indeed, he published 50 issues of the comic in just seven years and only thirty more in the past 24. However, Porcellino's mastery of his art makes each new issue an event. Along the way, Porcellino also completed several books apart from his minicomic, including his epic memoir The Hospital Suite. Readers of his work will know just how difficult it became for him to draw and how part of his journey as an artist has been finding his way through mental and physical illness.

Before I review the most recent King-Cat, let's celebrate the welcome news that his previous collections from Drawn & Quarterly are being reprinted in a slightly different size and format. The first volume has already been published: King-Cat Classix, covering King-Cat #1-50. The new version is in softcover (as opposed to the original's hardcover) and slightly smaller page size. Neither of these changes has much of an impact on the material; in fact, Porcellino's work feels more natural in a softcover collection. The actual comics see the author as a young man finding novel ways to express himself. Many of the strips were about his experience as a mosquito abatement technician, and they were also collected elsewhere. Some of the strips about high school were collected in Perfect Example, which is also getting reprinted by D&Q. 

From a craft perspective, it's fascinating to watch his line and style evolve with relentless drawing. Like many young cartoonists, he didn't have a real sense of what he was doing in his early years, and the result is a lot of wonky drawings that he attempted to support in his earliest years with some over-rendering and spotting blacks. Eventually, he abandoned that approach and simply let his drawings be as she slowly refined and simplified his line. By the end of the volume, Porcellino is close to his modern style, creating an almost serene line ideal for his more frequent zen and poetic strips. While his best work was certainly yet to come, the raw enthusiasm on the page is exciting to follow. Fans of the artist who haven't examined this work should certainly take a look, understanding that in the early 90s, these comics were a powerful influence on a network of like-minded young cartoonists.

It's fascinating to compare it to King-Cat #80, the most recent issue from November of 2020. Porcellino's absolute mastery over his line is evident on every page, even in an issue that has a relaxed pace. Porcellino has noted that each issue has its own character, understanding that some might not have as many emotionally powerful stories as his most memorable work. Those issues aren't filler so much as a way of documenting and respecting quieter times. 

That's especially true since Porcellino is in a pleasantly domestic and quiet period of his life. He notes in the beginning that he married Stephanie, his partner of nearly a decade. The ups and downs of his relationships have always been a part of his work, but Stephanie's presence has always been more subtle. Indeed, King-Cat now is much less about relationships than it is about what they share together on a daily basis, especially their many pets. Porcellino has always been interested in nature, but his reports on the flora and fauna of South Beloit now occupy a significant amount of his attention as an artist.

In this issue, for example, the opener concerns a beloved Porcellino staple; the changing of seasons. The dawn of spring, the jack-in-the-pulpits blooming are typical of the sort of thing Porcellino always appreciated, but there are extra little notes about appreciating the smell of the kitchen after Steph made coffee and taking his dog Iris outside to listen to the birds. There's a powerful sense of belonging and gratitude evident in this story, as he spends a few moments outside before starting his day. Listening is a key element in this issue; there are strips about listening to nature and trucks with the same ears, and another strip about hearing his cat purr on his chest while they listened to the mice scratching in the walls. His line is especially spare in that latter strip, yet it's still powerfully evocative--especially as part of the larger theme.

Porcellino's love of animals fills this issue up. There's a brief note about the death of he and Steph's dog Gibby--an event so painful that he wasn't ready to draw him again just yet. However, that segued into them getting a new rescue they named Arlo, who fit right into their menagerie of cats and dogs. There are the usual "nature notes" of animals he spots, specifics about their pets (like their beloved toys), a fascinating list of dreams, letters, and his usual Top 40 list. This is a long-held part of the rhythm of the typical issue of King-Cat, and the way he arranged so many features around the death of a pet and how he coped with it tell their own story in a tacit manner. It's a familiar Porcellino trope, but it's also clear how comforting embracing nature in its most sublime manner is healing for him.

There's a moment in a story about setting up bird and squirrel feeders in the yard where Porcellino stops and acknowledges, "During the quarantine I move even slower, pausing to breathe, to feel fresh air, to let the sunlight warm me." That's what this issue is all about, embracing and leaning into that slowness. That includes a very funny anecdote about warming his cold feet in bed with Steph; Porcellino rarely does gags but has always had a sly, observational sense of humor. That's preceded by an observation and memory of his sick mother, as well as a childhood memory of a neighbor who used to give them ice cream--a pleasantly visceral memory. Porcellino deliberately spends very little time on the past in this issue, but it's as though the warmth he built up prior to this gave him permission to do so. The issue ends in fall in a story that echoes the opener--smelling the seasons changing and spending time with his dog while doing so. The final image is of a one-page comic celebrating the plants on the hill being born, being greeted by the hill, and dying, mourned by the hill. It's a bittersweet grace note that acknowledges the inevitability and fleeting nature of beauty and mortality. 

Porcellino's other recent mini was Christmas Stories, from January 2020. This comic is exactly what it sounds like, with three short stories. "From A Buick '66" is about one of his oldest memories at Christmas time. There's an absolutely perfect panel depicting the wild child energy he felt of him with his mouth and eyes wide open, agog with anticipation. The actual memory--of seeing Santa pull up in a big car and go across the street--is funny and full of awe at the same time. "Mysterious Gift" is all about outsmarting yourself when you think you know what you're getting at Christmas, with a wonderful full-page punchline. The final piece, "Ho, Ho, "Ho" is a now somewhat infrequent memory of his college days when he was partying pretty hard. He had promised to play Santa for a bunch of kids on Christmas eve and promptly forgotten about it, but he showed up extremely hung-over and did the job. These wilder tales are as matter-of-fact as any kind of memory Porcellino writes about, but it was clear that the humor involved made it a pleasure. It also gave him another chance to do drawings of children unhinged by Christmas. It's a genuine pleasure to isolate specific Porcellino images on the page as well as see them in their larger context. That speaks to his understanding of a cartoonist on how the micro and macro moments interact with each other, and how even the smallest moments accrue into larger truths. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Minis: November Garcia

There are a lot of ways to think about the most recent comics from November Garcia, which include Malarkey #5 and (Even) More Diary Comics From A Relative Nobody. The first thing I want to discuss, however, is Garcia's level of craft. Even though many of these comics were done during what was clearly a tumultuous time on top of dealing with the global pandemic, Garcia's drawings qua drawings show her at her peak. In Diary Comics, which is all black and white, there's a level of mastery and control on every page that reflects her comfort in working on fine details when appropriate but never quite leaving behind the rubbery qualities of her line that helps make her comics so funny. Her use of body language, facial expressions, and even the way she letters her comics is simply pleasurable to look at. Malarkey makes extensive use of spot color, usually for reasons of mood or contrast, and it's every bit as effective. Even the non-narrative sequence where she illustrates the lyrics of a song show Garcia returning to her psychedelic roots, only this time there's a much greater use of restraint. 

Diary Comics, like much of Garcia's work, tends toward closed autobiography. There isn't much in the way of context, emotionally or otherwise, but it doesn't matter much because she never cloaks her diary in any kind of coherent gimmick. That total lack of pretension is what makes Garcia's work so refreshing, along with the fact that she's a humorist even in the grimmest of situations. That almost ruthless funniness, usually at her own expense, reminds me a little of what Keiler Roberts does, only with a completely different personal context. What I mean by a lack of a gimmick, Garcia makes it clear that she's dealing with mental illness, addiction, social anxiety, and grief, among other issues, but all of those problems are muted in favor of trying to work them into gags. There's a strip where her therapist decides that Garcia has bipolar disorder, so she gives her Valpros. Garcia shrugs, saying, "Bend my brain, Valpros!" and matter-of-factly reports the drug helping her concentrate but also making her feel indifferent. Garcia is a clever, succinct writer, but it's her drawings that sell the hell out of every panel. Seeing the way she draws her hair alone is a big part of the appeal of her work.

Garcia's comics have also been about her slow entry and acceptance into the world of alternative comics. There's a strip about being named as an Ignatz award juror and having a funny conversation with Gabby Schulz about it. There's a self-deprecating strip about her "process" that touches on her cycle of addiction and fitness. There's a particularly grim strip that shows her completely over herself and her "made-up problems," wondering why people are even buying her comics. There are also more traditional comics about sharing old photos with an ex and making mutually lascivious comments and a hilarious set of exchanges with her dad about modern technology. 

Malarkey #5 I believe is slated to be the final issue, and it's the most substantial one to date. The issue touches on mortality and the time we spend together. As always, any material about Garcia's mother is gold and Garcia could write an entire book about her childhood alone that would be hilarious and weird. In this issue, she discusses how she first encountered death: first through pets, then her grandfather (as she tried to summon up feelings) when she was still quite young, and then her more recent friends and relatives. That makes her think about how she's living her own life, and it's sometimes a grim prospect.

That leads into a long, psychedelic adaptation of the song "Gasoline" by Shovels and Rope. It's a harsh, cynical take on life matched by Garcia's absurd, visceral, and weird drawings. She goes all-out here, playing up lurid, sick colors with the images of rot, decay, and putrescence. The back half of the issue features two examples of Garcia's specialty: the travelogue. Garcia particularly enjoys portraying the more depraved and hilarious aspects of her trip, like sending cocaine to former cartoonist Tom Van Deusen and giving him a bare-ass spanking along with cartoonist Max Clotfelter. It's such a ridiculous sequence of events, with the best part being a panel where he's getting spanked and his face is a mask of pleasure with little hearts surrounding it. The final sequence of a hung-over Garcia looking at a photo of herself elbow-dropping a bible capped off the silliness while giving it all a touch of regret.

More meditative is her account of her trip to Hawai'i with her husband and partner-in-crime Roy as they meet cartoonist Gabby Schulz. Garcia used an open-page layout here, which seemed fitting in this dreamy, meditative story that focused on a hike they all took together. Even the lighter use of color (colored pencils, perhaps?), as opposed to the denser, more saturated hues elsewhere in the book, reflect the gentler, more thoughtful tone at work here. There's still plenty of funny content, once again mostly at Garcia's expense (like having to slog through a deep puddle while the boys manage to mostly skip over it), but it's all a bit of an oasis, both personally and artistically.

The issue concludes with her mom's outrageous statements, told with a metal-blue wash. Garcia assembled something special here, even if it seemed to take an enormous toll in so doing. The raw nature of her observations, the lack of pretense, and her willingness to ramble all give her comics a sense of vulnerability and verisimilitude in a way a smoother narrative doesn't. Indeed, life itself is not a smooth narrative where everything makes, and Garcia's comics reflect that herky-jerky quality in a way that doesn't spare exploration of her most nihilistic thoughts but also allows her to share the absurd delight with which she views the world and the genuine curiosity and affection she feels for others.